Questioned the distribution of Australian aid in Palestine and the due diligence exercised to ensure appropriate use of funds.
I have some questions following up on my questions on foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority. Last estimates the department advised that textbooks promoting violence were provided by the Palestinian Authority to UNRWA schools and indicated that Australian aid funds haven’t funded the development of these text books; it’s nonetheless concerning that a UN agency supported by Australian taxpayers makes use of these textbooks. Has the Australian government made any representations to UNRWA demanding UNRWA not to use these textbooks in future upon threat of removal of Australian aid?
Whole interaction with Ms HK Yu (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT) and Senator Marise Payne (Foreign Minister) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).
Senator LEYONHJELM: I have some questions following up on my questions on foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority. Good afternoon, Ms Yu. Last estimates, in reply to a question on notice from Senator Abetz, the department advised that textbooks promoting violence were provided by the Palestinian Authority to UNRWA schools and indicated that Australian aid funds haven’t funded the development of these text books; it’s nonetheless concerning that a UN agency supported by Australian taxpayers makes use of these textbooks. Has the Australian government made any representations to UNRWA demanding UNRWA not to use these textbooks in future upon threat of removal of Australian aid?
Ms Yu : Yes. We are in constant engagement with UNRWA and, in particular, regarding the material in the textbooks, we did actually establish that none of the Australian funds were going into purchasing textbooks, as they were being provided as an in-kind contribution by the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless, we have been engaging with UNRWA to make sure that the neutrality principle is very rigorously followed and, through that discussion, we have discovered that they do have a good framework in place. In fact, recently the US Government Accountability Office have reviewed the systems that UNRWA have in place and that has given them an assurance that they’ve made huge efforts to neutralise some of this material. There is a very small component which actually is what we would regard as rather biased in its content. UNRWA have come up with complementary material to neutralise that and actually take their teachers and implementers of the textbook material through rigorous training to ensure that’s properly done. We are in constant discussion with our like-mindeds about this concerning factor as well, including the UK and obviously the US and the EU members.
Senator LEYONHJELM: When you refer to ‘neutralise this material’, the material leads to the children in UNRWA schools in one of the refugee camps that I’m aware of chanting, ‘Wave the swords; this is how Mohammed taught us how to slaughter Jews.’ How do you neutralise that?
Ms Yu : It’s really to try and take that material out and provide different examples that teachers can adopt. I’m not aware of that particular example and how they may have neutralised that, but the framework allows for different examples to be introduced in situations like that and training teachers to ensure that perhaps that’s not the example that gets used in their teaching.
Senator LEYONHJELM: I recently became aware of some information about the Shu’fat refugee camp in Jerusalem, which has 30,000 residents. The information suggests that it’s a hotbed of recruitment and activity by both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which are recognised as terrorist organisations by many countries, including Australia. The people in there, because it’s in Jerusalem, have the option of taking out Israeli citizenship, if they wish to, but they don’t, and it is an UNRWA camp. The information that I have is that it is absolutely infested with corruption and crime, sanitation is very poor and there are drugs and prostitution; all sorts of evil things are occurring there, including ghastly anti-Semitic activities. This is happening on UNRWA’s watch. My concern is, I suppose, that neutralising that or having frameworks in place may not be sufficient.
Ms Yu : Thank you for bringing that example to my attention. I was not aware of it and I’d be happy to look into it. We have staff actually on the ground to ensure that a lot of these things are properly implemented in line with Australian government values and Australian values, so we will make sure that we look into that.
Senator LEYONHJELM: The other matter that I’d like to raise with you is this issue of the Palestinian Authority—or the PLO, I think—providing financial support to convicted prisoners, detainees and their families, in particular those arrested by the Israelis for terrorist activities. Some of your argument has been that it’s not Australian money which is contributing to this. My concern is that money is totally fungible; if you put money into a pot and a different piece of money is taken out somewhere else and spent on these undesirable activities, it doesn’t really keep Australia’s hands clean. If you’re looking into some of these activities, you might also look at that to determine whether or not we really are, one way or another, funding the payment of terrorists.
Ms Yu : As you are aware, we have actually stopped all of our payments directly to the Palestinian Authority. So, to the extent that those payments are made by the PA, through the PLO, I think we can definitely say that there is no Australian money, fungibility or not, in the hands of the PA directly from the Australian government.
Senator LEYONHJELM: As I recall from the last estimates, our total contribution to various Palestinian causes is about $40 million; is that right?
Ms Yu : That’s correct; $43 million for this year.
Senator LEYONHJELM: How many separate recipients of that would there be?
Ms Yu : Do you mean where we actually provide the funds to?
Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes. The organisations or bodies or whatever that receive it: how many separate organisations are there?
Ms Yu : There are actually quite a few.
Senator LEYONHJELM: So 10, 20 or 30?
Ms Yu : It could range to around 20, but I will have to take that on notice so that we can provide a proper list for you. I’ve got some names here, but it’s not a comprehensive list.
Senator LEYONHJELM: What I am inviting you to do is to provide some comfort to the committee: that you’ve looked at each of those recipients and there isn’t any possibility that those funds are funding terrorist activities.
Ms Yu : Absolutely.
Senator LEYONHJELM: I think the Australian taxpayers have a right to be comfortable that their money is not going to any terrorist causes. I appreciate the fact that funding for the PA has ceased, which is good, and you’ve also ceased funding another organisation that I brought to your attention in previous estimates, which is also good. But it concerns me that I had to bring them to your attention. If you haven’t looked at those other 20, or however many there are, with great scrutiny then perhaps it might be time that you did.
Ms Yu : Thank you for your question. We do take this extremely seriously, as you can imagine. Given the very high standard that we set ourselves around ensuring no terrorist financing, even if it’s by default, we actually have a number of reviews that we carry out rigorously, in addition to accreditation and assessment of all the recipients of the aid. But, because this is done in the Palestinian territories, we take extra measures to ensure this. We even do spot checks, kind of unannounced visits to sites, to make sure that the money is going where it’s meant to be going and that activities are being undertaken in the way that they are meant to be undertaken. Also, we regularly check against the list of terrorist organisations or identified people of concern to ensure that they are not in any way part of the program that we run in the PT area.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Finally—I didn’t double-check this before I came in—am I right in saying that the United States administration has withdrawn all or some funding for UNRWA?
Ms Yu : Yes, they have withdrawn all.
Senator LEYONHJELM: All funding?
Ms Yu : That’s correct.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Has there been any consideration by Australia of doing the same thing?
Ms Yu : That’s a matter for government. But we certainly have provided consistent funding to UNRWA because we recognise that they provide basic services that are required by those who are in greatest need in the Palestinian territories. That has actually remained at around $20 million per year for the last three years.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Minister, do you want to add anything to that?
Senator Payne: The government does recognise that there is a significant humanitarian refugee issue to be addressed in the region and part of our approach to supporting people in those circumstances is through this funding. But we do expect the department, my department, to exercise the highest levels of diligence on the sorts of issues that you have raised—I think Ms Yu has gone into some of the detail about that—and that is an absolute expectation of government in terms of the administration of these funds. I am regularly advised of updates on these matters and, of course, you and other senators have raised separate cases which we have considered individually as they’ve come across our desk.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Thank you.